Jeff Runnings has amassed a catalog that now spans nine full-length releases. With his first solo record, Primitives and Smalls, (due 6 May 2016 from Saint Marie Records,) he has managed to synthesize not only an incredible variety of new musical tones, ideas, and moods; he has somehow also integrated his own completely distinctive sound with a lifetime rooted in meaningful musical influences. (Runnings has exerted his own musical influence that can be heard in the music of Weekend and DIIV.)
Primitives and Smalls may be his most deeply romantic and soul mining effort, and it is a soaring success. Runnings wrote every word and note, plays all the instruments, and as usual, his singing is confident and conspiratorial. While being strong rhythmically and melodically, the lyrical terrain that Runnings covers is no less fertile for being familiar. He explores heady universal themes with acid and wit – ranging from emotional torment, the psychologically destructive powers of resentment and obsession, the inevitability of regret, and ultimately, the combined powers of love and time to heal and transform us.
It is a wonder that something can sound so original, fresh, and new while also harkening flashes of the very best 1970s and 1980s post punk. Every note, every vibe, every juxtaposition sounds distinctly his own, yet Runnings gives us masterful and clever references to Killing Joke, Felt, The The, early Psychedelic Furs, as well as Duritti Column and other Factory acts of early vintage.
It is perhaps because Runnings has managed through the years to do something very elusive – he’s created his own musical language to build what is really an ethos – something that is wholly of his invention, but to which you are invited to participate. (You always know when you are listening to a Jeff Runnings song, in the same way you always know you are listening to a Cure song, or a Smiths song.)
While leading his band For Against over the past three decades, he has consistently been able to perpetrate a powerful form of refreshment, and even when necessary, reinvention. He’s accomplished this by erecting an incredibly broad and strong foundation of interesting sound and feeling that gives him lots of space to work in and add to.
That power is on display with Primitives and Smalls. Runnings uses a key-heavy approach layered with guitars and bass. In the way that Wire has been able to constantly refresh their sound by modulating degrees of rock, punk, and pop; or the way that XTC used jazz and heavy psychedelia to mix things up, Runnings’ music here stirs in classical piano, and, using the description found on Saint Marie’s Web site, he creates, “music driven by Cocteau drums and Factory synths, it’s like being pulled under the ice by your own tormented thoughts.”
Perhaps most impressive is the amount of restraint Runnings shows with brilliant hooks and super catchy strokes of sound. At times the way he is able to simply toss off and understate wonderful ideas fairly makes the listener ache – think of it like waiting for a massive explosion whose bright light and shattering sounds are somehow rather made all the more spectacular and satisfying by unexpectedly imploding.
As one example, the record’s closer, My Cheerleader, washes along beautifully – evocative bells, guitar trills, and woodblocks calmly driving the song. The number waits until its final seconds to pause then blast the listener with a brief and gorgeous spray of open chord guitar. Just a blissful handful of seconds that a less savvy artist would have (and could have!) overused. The listener almost hopes for the pretty guitar to continue, but then the song and the record dissolve into dreamy synth and fade out.
Saint Marie did a killer job with design and packaging. Here is a link to terrific write up on their Web site, with a track list and information for preordering: saintmarierecords.com – jeffrunnings.
Here are two songs to check out — Maze opens the record, and Travelogue.